Once upon a time in the West, “The Junction” became Watrous

Fort Union (photo Outdoors NM)

Watrous is today a hamlet of about a hundred inhabitants within 87 miles (140 kilometres) east of Santa Fe in the southern part of the Rocky Mountains near the old Fort Union built in 1851 on the Santa Fe Trail.

At the time of Colonial French Louisiana, the site was known as “The Junction” of the rivers Mora and Sapello whose headwaters are still in the nearby mountains. In 1879, The Junction, La Jonction in French, was renamed Watrous in honor of a noble resident of the community, when the Southern Pacific Railway Company train arrived to town. The Junction, also called “La Junta de los Ríos”, played a critical role in the economic development of New Mexico and its early American history. Native American, Spanish and French cultures were very much alive. Encampments of indigenous people were customary on the site.

A critical economic development role

At first, aboriginal tribes of the Great Plains, where bison were abundant, came to The Junction to trade among themselves and with Pueblos from Santa Fe and Taos. Bison hides and meat were exchanged for fruits, vegetables and other items. French speaking merchants quickly seized the commercial opportunities of this high-intensity local market. They came in large numbers with European goods and hunting rifles for trade purposes. The fresh water of the rivers Mora and Sapello allowed horses to drink and traders to crush their thirst away from any oversight and control by the government of New Spain.

After the revolt of the Pueblos of 1680, many Francophones came to settle in Santa Fe. The best known among them were Jacques Grolet, Jean L’Archevêque and Pierre Meusnier. Grolet and L’Archevêque respectively founded the dynasties of New Mexico, that is to say the current families of Gurule and Archibeque. Of course, these names have adapted to local pronunciation and various handwriting over the years. The Lamy, Saint-Vrain, Catron, Ledoux and Girard families also contributed to the colonization and economic growth of Santa Fe, one of America’s oldest cities and the capital of New Mexico. Jean-Baptiste Lamy, born in Lempdes, France, was the first archbishop of Santa Fe. The town of Lamy south of Santa Fe has been named in his honor.

In the late 1700s, following the Haitian Revolution, many Francophones left the island of Saint-Domingue, now Haiti, and settled in New Mexico.

French-inspired architecture

The Loretta Chapel in Santa Fe, USA (photo aztecnm.com)
The Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, France (photo Angela Milne)

The French heritage of Santa Fe is also revealed in architecture. Indeed, the Loretta Chapel looks surprisingly like the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. In addition, the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi Santa Fe seems to have been modeled after the cathedral located in Clermont-Ferrand in Puy-de-Dôme, France.

The northeastern section of New Mexico was part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase because the Mora River, running near Santa Fe, is a tributary of the Canadian River, the longest tributary of the Arkansas River, which in turn flows into the mighty Mississippi. The Louisiana Purchase territory was made up of the Mississippi’s western drainage basin.